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FAA Approves Ornge to Fly U.S. Skies

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Canada’s now-famous Ornge air ambulance service has been given permission by the FAA to fly its emergency transport helicopters in U.S. airspace.

Effectively, this means that that Ornge’s fleet of emergency air ambulances can now transport patients to and from any location in the United States.

What does it mean for patients? Well, it’s not that helicopter patient transports from Canada to the United States are all that common, or even typically necessary. However, according to the Interim CEO of Ornge, the newly granted permission gives patients “one more option to ensure [they] receive the care they need.”

The CEO of Windsor Regional Hospital expressed to the CBC that the FAA allowance will make it easier for Ontario citizens who need medical care while abroad in the United States to return home after they’ve been stabilized.

The move likely means that Ornge will have to deal with less “red tape” during the course of a transport. Since U.S. EMS staff will not be required at all for the patient transfer process, it makes sense that international Canada-U.S. air ambulance transports may be just that much quicker for Ornge.

Mind you, the rules don’t restrict Ornge just to U.S. destinations near the Canadian border. For example, an Ornge air ambulance can apparently now fly down to a town in Arizona, pick up a patient with Ontario citizenship, and head back to Windsor Regional without a hiccup in the process — always a good thing for patients.

Don’t expect to see too many of the Ontario-based air ambulances filling the skies over the U.S., however. The CEO of Windsor Regional Hospital told the CBC that his hospital has only about four patients transferred back home from the United States a year.

Canada’s renowned healthcare system has gifted the country with a wealth of advanced healthcare facilities for giving necessary medical attention to the most critical patients. Therefore, an air ambulance flying a patient from Canada to the U.S. for higher-level care is a somewhat rare sight. When such transfers are needed in a town like Windsor, it’s typically a ground operation since the town is only about 15 minutes from Detroit.

Just a few months ago in June 2012, Windsor’s CEO apparently told CBC he wanted to opt out of using Ornge altogether.

“We have, 15 minutes away, tertiary centres in Detroit — some of the finest. Why not allow us to access those and do an audit after the fact on whether we’re abusing it or not?” CBC quoted him as saying. “Ornge can focus on the rest of the province. We have an opportunity here, and it’s a limited amount of cases. We’re talking about a finite amount of cases for us to access immediately Detroit and worry about it later.”

Whether it affected anything or not, that statement was of course made in greater proxy to the big, big problems that the air ambulance service was experiencing earlier this year.

The process whereby a Canadian air ambulance service petitions for approval from the FAA to operate in U.S. airspace is, as any application process can be, a tricky enterprise. The FAA goes over all the carrier’s systems and details with a fine comb as expected, making sure everything is up to their regulations before giving permission.

Such a process includes an in-depth FAA review of aviation documentation, policy and training manuals, certificates, procedures, and so on. It could only be after the FAA giving ORNGE a perfect score on their foreign carrier application that they would give the service permission to transport patients themselves in U.S. airspace.

According to the CBC article, Ornge’s fixed-wing air ambulances were able to continue transporting patients to and from the United States during the application process.

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